12 Years a Slave
The cynic in me says that this film was only made to respond to DJANGO UNCHAINED. In my opinion that film was unfairly criticized for not accurately portraying the atrocities that took place during the era of slavery. I would argue that DJANGO was not about slavery, but a revenge film that is set during the era of slavery. Make no mistake 12 YEARS A SLAVE is a film about the atrocities of slavery. This film is also one of the most powerful pieces of filmmaking I have seen in quite some time.
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York with his wife and two children, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South. After he determines there is no way to get anyone to believe his story, he decides that he has to try to survive rather than escaping. Based on a true story and book of the same name written by Northup and published in 1863, the film chronicles his 12 years struggling to keep his dignity while observing all the unjust treatment of not only himself but the other slaves as well. His first plantation owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) recognizes that he is not like the other slaves and treats him reasonably well. On one occasion Northup stands up for himself and is nearly killed for his action. This leads Ford to sell Northup to a more sadistic owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) where his resolve to survive is put to the ultimate test.
This film is brutally honest in its portrayal of slavery. Since it is based on the real life story of Northup it cannot be accused of being over the top. Director Steve McQueen pulls no punches in showing the events that took place during this time. McQueen uses several unbroken shots to enhance the audiences experience in the horror of slavery. Early in the film when Northrup discovers that he has been kidnapped and is being bound by chains, he is beaten by one of his kidnappers on his back with a paddle. This is shown in real time without cuts so the audience is unable to divert their attention elsewhere. Another sequence of note is another early scene in which a mother and her two children are sold separately. This shows one of the biggest horrors of that time which is the complete separation of families from each other forever. The scene is heartbreaking to watch but this was an unfortunate fact of the times. After Northrup tries to defend himself and has a fight with one of the overseers he is tortured by being hung but with just enough room so he can barely stand on his toes. In another unbroken shot we are shown Northup hanging for several minutes. McQueen uses the ambient sounds with “normal” life going on around him. No one attempts to help and the audience is forced to sit and watch him suffer. Some may say the sequence goes on too long but I thought that it help emphasize the point of his helplessness and suffering. However, the most disturbing and brutal moment of the film involves the whipping of another slave. I will not reveal the details because it is important to the plot but it the most heart wrenching scene in recent memory. It is absolutely brutal in its realism and it was at this point that I could hear audible sobbing from several members of the audience.
While this is a great film it is by no means perfect. The film’s opening disjointed structure had me confused. It would have suited the film better had it been told in order. The biggest misstep in the film is the casting of Brad Pitt in a pivotal role late in the film. It is no coincidence that Pitt is one of the producers of the film and he is cast in a role that is not slave owner. I did not feel like I was watching an actor here but watching a movie star playing dress up and attempting to give the film credibility. The material is strong enough and his presence was not needed.
I hesitate to call this film entertaining because of the dark nature of the film but it is gripping and compelling. I do expect multiple Academy Award nominations for the acting for Ejiofor, Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. The film is the polar opposite of DJANGO UNCHAINED so if you are going in thinking that it is that kind of movie you will be in for a shock. This is an important film that should be seen by all. Hopefully it will open up meaningful dialogue about this country’s history so we are not doomed to repeat the past. Much like SCHINDLER’S LIST it is an important film that documents a tragic time in history but it is not always easy to sit thru. The film is an important history lesson for all people. See it.